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Hitchens: great beyond debate

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Christopher Hitchens has made a career of being a provocateur.  His whole life, he's always seemed to have someone to bait:  campus policemen, religious believers, Mother Teresa supporters, Republicans, Democrats.  He's risen to the challenges of trouncing his lessers with aplomb: whatever your thoughts about the positions he takes, you'd have to concede that they're beautifully articulated.

Now Hitchens, who admits to "loving the imagery of struggle," may be facing his greatest opponent: cancer.  Deprived of his historically "stout constitution," Hitchens must cope as well with another setback: he has no lesser to taunt.  His prodigious intelligence, bullying instincts, debating techniques and rhetorical prowess are useless in this fight.  He can't humiliate his cancer on Fox News; he can't reason away the existence of his tumors as he did the myth of God.

And, yet, this lack of a confrontational dynamic may prove a gift of sorts.  Ejected from his adversarial stance, Hitchens is producing what may be the most eloquent and important writing of his life.  In four articles in Vanity Fair (part of a series that seems poised to continue until it doesn't), Hitchens has written about his cancer with an honesty, clarity and lack of sentimentality quite unusual for mass media.

Hitchens gently, bluntly deflates the linguistic tricks we use to deny the helplessness of cancer patients.  For example, about the predilection for referring to cancer patients as "battling" their disease, Hitchens observes:

when . . . kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don't read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you.  You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.
Similarly, Hitchens dissects his complex reaction to the verbal support he receives from well-wishers.  In his October article, he reflected:

An enormous number of secular and atheist friends have told me encouraging and flattering things like: "If anyone can beat this, you can"; "Cancer has no chance against someone like you"; "We know you can vanquish this."  On bad days, and even on better ones, such exhortations can have a vaguely depressing effect.  If I check out, I'll be letting all these comrades down.
Along the same lines, Hitchens in his December article recounted:

Telling someone else, with deliberate realism, that once I'd had a few more scans and treatments I might be told by the doctors that things from now on could be mainly a matter of "management," I . . . had the wind knocked out of me when she said, "Yes, I suppose a time comes when you have to consider letting go."  How true, and how crisp a summary of what I had just said myself.  But again there was the unreasonable urge to have a kind of monopoly on, or a sort of veto over, what was actually sayable.  Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic.
In his writing about having esophagal cancer, as ever, Hitchens is cogent, brutal, confident and vital.  His perseverance in these qualities, despite his condition, manifests powerful personal integrity that is impossible not to admire . . . 

. . . and for which I am grateful.  In his November article, Hitchens reported that he felt "cheated as well as disappointed" because he "didn't . . . qualify" for a trial treatment that would have allowed him to do "something for humanity" in accordance with Horace Mann's precept that, "Until you have done something for humanity, . . . you should be ashamed to die."  Hitchens is too hard on himself.  He doesn't need to be a lab rat to meet Mann's standard.  Hitchens' contribution to humanity is extant, ongoing and deeply appreciated. 

(Image of Christopher Hitchens from Vanity Fair)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Hitchens, Christopher category.

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